He has photographed campaigns for the likes of Hermès, Nike, and Heineken; his work has been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide; he was represented by the agency that also represents icons like Patrick Demarchelier and Steven Meisel; and he was once neighbours with Kanye West. But despite all his international success, John Clang is still a Singapore boy at heart.
Through his work that is both universal in its message yet intimately autobiographical, Clang has become one of the most significant Singaporean artists of his generation, capturing the spirit and ethos of our times by way of a highly personal lens. “Art to me is about a reflection of my inner self—seeking to resonate and make sense with the world we inhabit,” explains the New York-based lensman.
Back home, Clang has become part of national arts history. In 2009, the Singapore Art Museum acquired some of his work as part of its permanent collection. A year later, Clang became the first photographer to receive “Designer of the Year” recognition at the annual President’s Design Awards, the most prestigious accolade in Singapore design.
In 2013, the National Museum of Singapore presented a solo exhibition of all 40 portraits in Clang’s Being Together series.
When he’s in the motherland, Clang can be found tucking into a plate of char bee hoon with fish cakes, or people-watching and reminiscing along the streets of Geylang, Toa Payoh and Middle Road.
That nostalgia for a Singapore connected to his past is explored in Clang’s latest series of artworks, compiled into a book titled The Land of My Heart for TwentyFifteen, an artistic initiative of 20 tomes dedicated to the upcoming 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence in 2015.
HEARTLAND HERO Worlds away from the multi-million-dollar New York apartments he now owns, Ang Choon Leng grew up with modest means in a Bedok HDB flat. His father worked at a hawker centre and his mother was a waitress, and Clang worked odd jobs to earn spending money. “To be honest, being a heartland boy,
I never had big dreams,” he says about his childhood.
At 15, he convinced his mum to buy him his first camera, a Pratika that cost $120. His first roll was underexposed and came out all black—but the teenager insisted to his friends it was intentional, and immediately realised the power of individual interpretation. “From day one,
I considered myself an artist,” he says. “I was never that interested in photography, but I love the possibilities it provides as a medium.”
When he was 17, Clang enrolled at LASALLE College of the Arts to study fine art and photography but dropped out to assist fine art photographer Chua Soo Bin, who became his mentor. During National Service, people started calling him “Clang” as his name badge read C L Ang, and he has gone by the name John Clang—or simply Clang, as the appellation could also include his wife Elin, who plays an essential role in his work—ever since.
Clang’s first exhibition at 20 was part of a duo-show with the Singapore art group 5th Passage Artists, an artist-run initiative that was effectively blacklisted following a provocative performance art event that the Singapore High Court deemed in breach of the law.
The forced closure of 5th Passage left Clang, still a fledgling artist, feeling “completely lost and shut down… ” Evidence of Clang’s inner turmoil began to appear in his work. In the wake of 5th Passage closing, Clang secretly snapped the 1996 photograph, A Soldier, with a smuggled camera during his first army reservist stint inside an air base. It shows one of his army mates blindfolded, a visual metaphor for Clang’s feelings of isolation: “I suddenly became an outsider and could not see the future ahead of me,” he explains.
Clang soon made his outsider status literal and moved to New York in 1999, his wife and life savings in tow. He gained a foothold in the industry, shooting for the likes of IBM, Nordstrom, Adidas, and The New York Times Magazine. The commercial and editorial jobs paid the rent, but Clang continued to pursue his personal art. “What we see and learn is the life we are coping with. That interests me—our human condition,” he says about his personal work. “Commercial work has no room for such a message. It’s about escapism.”
CLOSE TO HOME Living overseas, Clang’s sense of identity in connection to Singapore only seemed to grow stronger. His insights regarding his homeland became increasingly evident in his personal work—from the 2003 Stray Cat photo series that highlighted the loneliness of urban life to the introspective Guilt, which featured portraits of his family members at home in Singapore with their faces erased and replaced with handwritten apologies.
Clang’s highly personal approach—often using his friends and family as his subjects—has defined his signature style. “I ask myself what intrigues me in life, and how can I approach it in a way that gives a different perspective,” he says about his artistic style.
“In short, it’s a belief. What you believe matters.”
One of his most acclaimed works to date is the 2010-2012 photo series Being Together, about families divided by distance, brought together from different parts of the world for a family portrait using digital projections of a Skype call. The first portrait is of Clang and Elin in New York with his family in Singapore. Proving the universal relevance of Clang’s art, Skype turned his innovative Being Together concept into the “Stay Together” campaign, which included print ads as well as an emotional tear-jerking video that went viral. The campaign won multiple Cannes Lions, the Oscar equivalent for advertising.
Even with feelings of guilt and longing, Clang has never regretted leaving Singapore, because in some ways, he says, he feels he has never left. “My connection to the Lion City has only become greater,” he says. He continues to coach and encourage young photographers through his mentorship programme, conducts the occasional photography master-class, and gets involved in local arts events whenever he’s in town.
Now, two decades after the controversial 5th Passage incident, Clang describes the current local art scene as “heavenly.” “It has progressed so much in the last 20 years, something I would have never imagined,” he says, admitting there’s always room for improvement, but that the progress is “already miles ahead compared to my time as a young artist.” Mostly, he encourages local artists to fight hard for their art. “If one can be brave enough, Singapore is a land of opportunities,” he says.
ODE TO THE SQ GIRL “When I first moved to America, few people knew where Singapore was,” Clang recalls, “but they always knew the ‘Singapore Girl’ from Singapore Airlines.” For Clang’s latest series of works, The Land of My Heart, Singapore Girls wearing the iconic sarong kebaya are plucked out of a plane cabin and placed in mundane yet familiar heartland locations, such as a community swimming pool, a wet market, and the carpark of an HDB block.
By using former SQ flight attendants who have since hung up their batik slippers, Clang’s images juxtapose the everlasting icon of the SQ Girl with the past, as well as with the present, represented by the changing landscape of Singapore’s heartlands. The few lines of text that accompany each image—textual memories of dialogue spoken from Clang’s own life—further emphasise a wistful sense of nostalgia. “At times, it can be an exhausting process to dig out the past,” he says. All of this soul-searching, however, has become essential to Clang’s own journey as an artist. “My belief in creating images starts in our mind, in our life—not the camera,” he says. It’s a message he hopes to impart to all aspiring artists: “Live your life, and your work will be enriched by your experience.”
Fully committed to his art, Clang constantly pushes himself to take risks in order to stay “hungry.” “My hunger comes from the urge to create work that matters,” he says. He is currently working on three long-term art projects, including his first arthouse film that is completely self-financed. “I’m 200 percent sure that it will have zero box office,” he jokes, “but I’m also certain that I will be proud of it.” At only 41 years old, Clang continues to add to his growing oeuvre of work to further his attempts to capture the modern human condition. “I would like future historians to be able to see our minds, the way we think, through my work,” he says. But his lasting legacy, will also include the place he calls home. “Ambitiously,” confesses Clang, “I hope Singapore’s art education will have a small mention of me.” ■